Viewpoint: The geopolitical seafarer

By : Michael Grey

IT WOULD be a nasty surprise if, on your way to join a ship in a US port, or even taking your family for a holiday at Disneyland, you find yourself taken aside at immigration to discover your visa had been revoked.

Worse still, the unsmiling agent reveals that you are being banned for life under anti-terrorism charges. And when you have recovered from the shock, imagining confinement in Guantanamo Bay, it is explained that as you have sailed on a merchant ship which had carried a cargo of Iranian oil, you are not welcome within US borders. This, of course is a distinct possibility for those who have served aboard the very large crude carrier formerly known as Grace 1, which became Adrian Darya 1 after its sojourn under arrest off Gibraltar and, by the time this article is printed, may well have changed its identity yet again. The threatening message from the US State Department to anybody who may have served on board a ship carrying Libyan oil is equally worrying for seafarers in general, as it seems both unjust and stupid.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation has pointed out this in commendable detail. Seafarers, it notes, “are being used as patsies by governments». The US, anxious to present the greatest amount of muscle in its wide-ranging sanctions against the Iranian regime seems to be unaware that even the best-informed senior personnel on board very many ships have no clue about the beneficial ownership of the cargo they are carrying, let alone the ship itself.

You might have thought that in the country in which the modern system of “open registration” of shipping was invented, the opacity of the global shipping industry would be well understood. There again, with US merchant seafarers mostly operating under the comfortable cushion of the Jones Act and its protection, they seem to have isolated themselves from many of the practicalities of modern international shipping. The seafarer is concerned with whoever pays their wages and probably does not trouble to dig any deeper into the antecedents of the shipping company, while the owners/operators/managers (the terms are immaterial in this context) will be interested only in the payment of the agreed freight. The actual ownership of the cargo, although it becomes important if sanctions are involved, may change several times on a voyage carrying oil, which makes the responsibilities of those on board even less relevant.

As the ITF points out, the final destination of a ship may be revealed to its master, only at a late stage of the voyage. “Land’s End for orders” had certain ambiguities in sailing ship days and it is not much more precise in these days of instant communications. What does the US State Department expect seafarers to do if the ship they are serving on board is deemed to be “sanctions busting»? Their contracts, which they can hardly break mid-voyage, will be with ship or crew managers and if they wish to remain in gainful employment, they will be ill-advised to walk off. It is in times of such crisis that the comfortable systems the modern shipping industry has constructed to keep the owners of its practitioners a confidential matter start to fall apart. You may suggest that it goes far beyond shipping and with companies and corporations being bought and sold like lumps of cheese, most of us do not have a clue whether the companies we deal with are owned by the Turkish army pension fund, or a hedge fund. The chances are, these days, it will have Chinese ownership somewhere along the line.

But when hostilities threaten, when trade sanctions and disputes between major powers arise, those sailing under flags of convenience find themselves quite lonely. The “international” nature of modern seafaring, with the nationality of the crew having no connection with the registration of the ship also make international laws and conventions seem almost irrelevant. What is the point of a government getting seriously engaged diplomatically (even militarily) about the seizure of a ship in which its only connection to that government is a bit of paper indicating its registration? The registration of a ship is of no real consequence until bad things happen, and then it can matter a great deal, when the capabilities of the flag flown to exert diplomatic pressure or offer actual protection in a hazardous area will be tested. And in most cases, it will be found wanting. It would make a lot more sense if governments were rather more concerned with any of their nationals on board a ship that is in a diplomatic fix, rather than the ship itself. While they can get very exercised about their tourists, merchant mariners invariably seem to come off second best. Seafarers, it is said “don’t make waves”.

source : lloydslist



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